LAST ETO MOH RECIPIENT

The last survivor. So I just called 98-year-old Charles H. Coolidge. He was at his home near where he was born in Tennessee. He was lying in bed, ill with multiple sclerosis, but said he was doing okay, considering. He is the only surviving Army soldier to have received the Medal of Honor during the Second World War – the only surviving Medal of Honor recipient from the European theater of the war. Every other man has gone. Just one other living American, a marine from the Pacific, received the MOH in WWII.

According to one of his sons, Coolidge is an amazingly positive man, always looking on the bright side of life. He certainly saw the worst in combat.

Coolidge served as a T Patcher, part of the legendary Texas National Guard unit, the 36th Infantry Division. The division received 12 Presidential Unit Citations and served for over 400 days in Europe, being the first US division to invade the mainland of Italy. He saw action from Salerno in September 1943 to the end of the war in Germany – some of the worst, most brutal combat suffered by Americans in any war. Italy, in particular, was a bloodbath for the Texans. There were almost 20,000 casualties in his division. Over 3000 men were killed.

On October 24, 1944, Coolidge was a technical sergeant in charge of group of machine-gunners and rifleman of M Company who were to hold a vital hilltop position in France near the German border. Over four days, Coolidge and his men held off vicious enemy attacks and on October 27 Coolidge repelled two German tanks using just grenades; one tank unsuccessfully fired 5 separate rounds at Coolidge who somehow survived and then led his men to safety. For his actions above and beyond the call of duty during the battle, Coolidge was presented the Medal of Honor by Lieutenant General Wade H. Haislip on 18 June 1945 during a ceremony at an airfield near Dornstadt, Germany.

It has been claimed that Coolidge perhaps saw more front-line fighting than any other US soldier in the war in Europe. The closest he came to being wounded was a piece of shrapnel hitting his boot. He married his wartime sweetheart 86 days after coming home – and finding himself a superstar. A famous photo shows WWI MOH hero, Sergeant Alvin York, driving a WWII jeep holding Coolidge on a celebratory drive through Chattanooga on his homecoming.

When I spoke to him today, he acknowledged his fellow T Patchers and when asked how long he spent in combat, risking his life to liberate Europe, he exclaimed: “A long time!”

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THE AMAZING MAURICE BRITT

THE AMAZING MAURICE BRITT

MAURICE BRITT BECOMES FIRST US SOLDIER TO WIN EVRY MEDAL FOR VALOR IN A SINGLE WAR

The odds of surviving until Christmas seem slimmer and slimmer. That November 1943, half way up a mountain near Mignano, in central Italy, with Corporal Audie Murphy and newly promoted Colonel Ware positioned just half a mile away, Britt’s forward positions come under savage attack. Britt knows that as the advanced unit in the 3rd Division’s defense of the mountain, he has to hold off the Germans as long as possible – so that his division comrades, including Murphy and Ware, have a fighting chance.
The Germans are hell bent on wiping out the American positions. It’s the fiercest, most unrelenting combat so far and before long Murphy and others are seeking refuge in a cave, pounded by accurate artillery fire. Something snaps inside Britt. The situation demands bold action, superb leadership. Once again, Britt wages a one-man war, determined to save his regiment from defeat. A private sees a bloodied Britt run out of ammunition for his carbine and then grab the M-1 of a severely wounded man so he can keep firing.


“At first it didn’t sink through my thick skull that the Germans were using our men as a shield,” Britt will recall. “Their trap might have worked, but one German eight-ball-there’s one in every Army-cut loose with his machine pistol and started screaming, ‘Surrender, surrender.’ I yelled to the prisoners to take off and then started firing myself. Most of the prisoners got away, but we couldn’t move. Behind us was an open field, which meant it would have been suicide to withdraw, and ahead of us were Germans. God knows how many. They seemed to be everywhere.”

According to one account: “He [Britt] fired about 75 rounds from his carbine, changing clips five times before running out of ammunition…he ran from side to side of our machine gun, firing at every sound and sight of the Germans; layer I saw Lt. Britt, slightly bleeding from his face, having run out of carbine ammo, grab the M1 rifle of a badly wounded man lying near me and continue to fire with it. He also grabbed some hand grenades and went ahead of our position, looking for Germans. A few minutes later, I saw him throwing grenades, disregarding machine-pistol bursts hitting all around him. I marveled he wasn’t hit. Concussion grenades were bursting all around him.”

A sergeant notices that Britt’s “canteen [is] pierced with bullet holes and his shirt covered with water; his field glasses case, too…pierced with bullet holes.” In all, Britt throws 32 grenades at the onrushing enemy and – using a rifle, a carbine and a heavy machine gun – stops the Germans in their tracks. He’s wounded but continues to kill enemy soldiers until they begin to fall back. The Fifteenth Infantry have narrowly avoided a humiliating rout. It is the kind of performance that will soon make Britt the first American soldier in WWII – and indeed in any single war – to win every award for bravery, a quite astonishing achievement.

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THE MEDAL OF HONOR ON D DAY

D DAY AND THE MEDAL OF HONOR 

By Alex Kershaw

Too few men received the highest award for valor on D Day. Is it time to correct this 75-year-old injustice?  

        On 6 June 1944, some 73,000 Americans landed in Normandy. More than two thousand made the ultimate sacrifice with by far the highest losses suffered on Omaha Beach with over nine hundred killed. There were untold acts of great boldness and audacity – frontal assaults into the cross-hairs of pre-sited machine-guns depend for their success above all on courage and aggression. And yet for their actions on D Day only four Americans received the highest award for valor, the Congressional Medal of Honor. Were too few recognized from so very many brave men?

        One of the four recipients was Theodore Roosevelt Jr., acting deputy commander of the 4Th Division, the oldest man at age 56 to land in the first wave. He led very ably on 6 June and beyond. Stepping out of a landing craft at around 6.30 am on Utah Beach was in itself medal-worthy. Yet his status as the son of America’s 26th President, Theodore Roosevelt, also explains  why he and no other man from 23,500 who crossed Utah, or indeed any paratrooper from more than 13,000 who dropped inland of the beach, received the highest award for valor. Patronage and politics played a part, however courageous Roosevelt undoubtedly was. 

       Other than Roosevelt, who died of heart failure on 12 July 1944, the other recipients of the medal all came ashore on Omaha. From the 35,000 men landed that day on the most fatal of the five landing beaches, some 4,700 men become casualties – missing, wounded, or killed – around thirteen percent of the total force launched early that morning from the sea. More than 900 men died there. No other one-day battle in the fight to liberate Europe was as costly for Americans as that to take Bloody Omaha. No other stretch of sands in Europe, it might be argued, witnessed so much death as well as courage in WWII. 

     All three of the men who received the MOH on Omaha belonged to the storied Big Red One, the only US infantry division from three on D Day that had previously experienced combat. Technician 5th Grade John Pinder from Pennsylvania had, like many of his comrades, seen action in Sicily with the 16th Infantry. He knew what an MG-42 machine gun sounded like – how it could fire up to 1500 rounds per minute, three times faster than any American automatic weapon. He knew the shrapnel caused by an 88mm artillery piece could turn men to hamburger. On Omaha, there was hardly anywhere out of range of both weapons.


      Pinder actually landed on his 32nd birthday, probably in the Easy Red sector, one of eight assigned landing zones, and the second most lethal after Dog Green where most of the  first wave were killed or wounded in just a few minutes. Carrying a heavy radio on his back, he was a natural target for snipers enjoying open season – defenders who knew that taking out radiomen was as impactful as picking off officers whose job it was to lead young, terrified Americans into the line of fire.

      As Pinder stepped off his landing craft, he came under intense machine gunfire which ripped through men nearby. He’d waded just a few yards when he too was hit. Although badly wounded, he managed to make it to the beach with his radio. Losing blood rapidly, Pinder refused to be treated by a medic and was seen trying to pull another radio and other equipment from the bullet-whipped shallows. The third time he returned to the waterline he was shot in the legs. While setting up radio communication – which would have helped save lives – he was hit yet again, this time fatally. 

         24-year-old Private Carlton Barrett, just 5ft 4 inches tall, tipping the scales at 125 pounds, was probably the smallest man in the 1st Division’s 18th Infantry Regiment. He also waded ashore under heavy fire. He too was seen returning several times to the water, in his case to save wounded men form drowning. Even as mortar shells exploded and bullets slashed all around, according to his MOH citation, he “calmed the shocked; he arose as a leader in the stress of the occasion.” He survived Omaha and the war. Forever haunted by the carnage he had witnessed, he died aged 66 in California.

            26-year-old, Virginia-born Lieutenant Jimmie Monteith, also with the Big Red One, also arrived when Bloody Omaha was deadliest and managed to organize his unit and get it to relative safety below some cliffs. He then led two tanks through a minefield and directed their fire at enemy strongpoints which were soon destroyed. After moving off Fox Red sector, furthest east on Omaha, he and his men seized a critical strongpoint, WN61, but were then surrounded. Attempting to break out, Monteith was killed.

        For their heroism on Omaha Beach, 153 men would receive the Distinguished Service Cross, America’s second highest award for bravery. Some of these DSC awards for extraordinary courage on Omaha should, without doubt, have actually been Medals of Honor. But officials were apparently concerned that too many men would get the highest award and its significance might somehow be diminished. So in several cases the MOH was downgraded to a DSC by an evaluation board. Had it not been for a personal note from General Eisenhower himself, Jimmie Monteith would in fact have received the DSC rather than the MOH.

       Not one man from the other infantry division to land on Omaha, the 29th, received the MOH yet so many, namely Assistant Division Commander Norman Cota, were certainly deserving of it, more than showing sufficient “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at risk of life above and beyond the call of duty”. Unlike the Big Red One, the 29th Division was new to combat and most of National Guard unit’s officers had never made medal recommendations for a bronze star, let alone the highest award with its stringent conditions.

        As the 75th anniversary of D Day approaches it might be appropriate to convene a new evaluation board and look again at the cases of those whose bravery was not sufficiently recognized on D Day, starting with those who fought on Omaha Beach. Upgrading several DSC awards would be a fitting act of commemoration. It would make the families of these forgotten inordinately proud quite apart from correcting an injustice. But what of the recipients, long gone? Might they shrug and smile ruefully from their graves? Might they simply say, as so many living MOH recipients do: Thanks, but I was just doing my job. I was doing what any other good soldier would do.

        What do medals mean anyway? Many decorated veterans from WWII have prized above all the combat infantry badge, not an award for valor as such, but a signifier that they were in fact there, deep in the horror and maw, unlike the men on evaluation boards. They did their part. The recognition of that was more than enough. Take the case of Audie Murphy, America’s most decorated soldier from WWII. He didn’t rack up 33 awards so he could bask in glory. He wanted to get the war over as fast as he could and the best way to shorten it, in his mind, was to attack and kill the enemy. Medals meant so little to him that he considered giving all of his away when he returned home, covered in ribbons, brutalized and forever broken. “War is a nasty business,” he told one reporter, “to be avoided if possible, and to be gotten over with as soon as possible. It’s not the sort of job that deserves medals.”

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ALEX KERSHAW’S THE FIRST WAVE – ADVANCE PRAISE

“Meet the assaulters: Pathfinders plunging from the black, coxswains plowing the whitecaps, bareknuckle Rangers scaling sheer rock. Will they secure the landing zone? Wrest the beachhead? Or will that last bridge blow up in their faces? Even if we know how D-Day ends, The First Wave grips with all the power of a first read. Fast-paced and up-close, this is history’s greatest story reinvigorated as only Alex Kershaw can.”—Adam Makos, New York Times bestselling author of A Higher Call

Montgomery decorates Sgt Streczyk of the 16th Regimental Combat Team with a British Military Medal

Montgomery decorates Sgt Streczyk of the 16th Regimental Combat Team with a British Military Medal

“The First Wave is Alex Kershaw’s stirring tribute to the warriors who successfully carried out the largest and most difficult military operations in history 75 years ago. One of the US First Infantry Division NCO’s who survived that desperate day in Normandy later said, ‘You can’t buy valor and you can’t pull heroes off an assembly line.’ Kershaw’s superb account of D-Day and beyond is the story of their amazing courage under fire and how men ranging from a lord of the realm to the humble son of a president answered the call and began the liberation of occupied Europe from Nazi tyranny.”—Carlo D’Este, author of Decision in Normandy and Patton: A Genius for War

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“Master storyteller Alex Kershaw brings the key Allied players of D-Day to life once more. He vividly portrays their exploits—Rangers at Pointe du Hoc, French Commandos at Ouistreham, American paratroopers on the Cotentin, and assault troops who hit the Normandy beaches. These pages ooze with the unforgettable human drama of history’s most consequential invasion. Read them and you might even feel as though you were there.”—John C. McManus, author of The Dead and Those About to Die: D-Day—The Big Red One at Omaha Beach

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“Alex Kershaw brilliantly brings a new perspective to one of the seminal events of WWII. The First Wave is an awe-inspiring and important book that portrays the blood on the risers, from Captain Frank Lillyman’s airborne pathfinders to Lieutenant George Kerchner’s Rangers and their remarkable assault on the cliffs of Pointe Du Hoc. The sights, sounds, and fury of D-Day are vividly captured in Kershaw’s virtuoso narrative.”—Patrick K. O’Donnell, author of The Unknowns: The Untold Story of America’s Unknown Soldier and WWI’s Most Decorated Who Brought Him Home

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“A masterful retelling of the most dramatic day of World War II—the Allied landings on the beaches of France. In Alex Kershaw’s expert hands, readers will feel the sting of the cold surf, smell the acrid cordite that hung in the air, and duck the zing of machine gun bullets whizzing overhead. The First Wave is an absolute triumph.”—James M. Scott, Pulitzer Prize Finalist and national bestselling author of Target Tokyo and Rampage

MILLIN AND LOVAT SWORD BEACH

1946 photo of Pegasus Bridge with, from left,  Georges Gondree the Proprietor of Cafe Gondree - now the Pegasus Bridge Cafe, Major John Howard DSO and Capt. David Wood.

1946 photo of Pegasus Bridge with, from left, Georges Gondree the Proprietor of Cafe Gondree – now the Pegasus Bridge Cafe, Major John Howard DSO and Capt. David Wood.

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B4K8NE WW2 casualties from the initial assault on D Day are helped ashore on Sword Beach The 1st Battalion South Lancashire Regiment together with elements of the Middlesex Regiment make their way up the beach from their landing crafts 1944

B4K8NE WW2 casualties from the initial assault on D Day are helped ashore on Sword Beach The 1st Battalion South Lancashire Regiment together with elements of the Middlesex Regiment make their way up the beach from their landing crafts 1944

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THE LONGEST WINTER

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ADN-ZB/Archiv, II.Weltkrieg 1939-45 Die Ardennenoffensive der faschistischen deutschen Wehrmacht beginnt am 16. Dezember 1944 gegen die alliierten Truppen in Westeuropa. Nach anf‰nglichen Erfolgen m¸ssen sich die deutschen Truppen bis Ende Januar 1945 auf ihre Ausgangsstellungen zur¸ckziehen. Eine Kolonne gefangengenommener amerikanischer Soldaten. (B¸schel) 125-45

ADN-ZB/Archiv, II.Weltkrieg 1939-45
Die Ardennenoffensive der faschistischen deutschen Wehrmacht beginnt am 16. Dezember 1944 gegen die alliierten Truppen in Westeuropa. Nach anf‰nglichen Erfolgen m¸ssen sich die deutschen Truppen bis Ende Januar 1945 auf ihre Ausgangsstellungen zur¸ckziehen.
Eine Kolonne gefangengenommener amerikanischer Soldaten.
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LONGEST WINTER AT CAMP MAXI

The Platoon at Yankee Stadium

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ALEX KERSHAW AUTHOR

Alex Kershaw Credit Michael Carroll

Avenue of Spies Paperback Jacket

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The Liberator Paperback Jacket

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SOLDIERS AND SPIES TOUR WITH ALEX KERSHAW

HIGHLIGHTS FROM 2017 TOUR

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THE FIRST WAVE – PHOTOS OF RESEARCH TRIP BY JOHN SNOWDON

GREAT SHOTS BY JOHN SNOWDON OF RESEARCH FOR MY NEW BOOK ON D DAYAlex050

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THE LIBERATOR – TOUR ITALY WITH ALEX KERSHAW

PLEASE VISIT WWW.ALEXKERSHAW.COM for more information on tours of Europe.

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SOLDIERS AND SPIES WITH THE NATIONAL WW2 MUSEUM

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IMG_1546The National WWII Museum embarks on a unique seven-day, six-night tour of France, visiting sites from Alex Kershaw’s New York Times bestsellers—Avenue of Spies and The Bedford Boys—with the author himself serving as featured historian. Guests get an up-close view of the beaches of Normandy, while hearing stories of sacrifice about the “Bedford Boys” who came ashore with Company A, 116th Regiment, 29th Infantry Division during the first wave at Omaha Beach on D-Day. Tour members also roam the breathtaking streets of Paris with Kershaw, who provides depth and context to the espionage that occurred there more than 70 years ago. Avenue Foch, one of the most upscale and exclusive streets in Paris, was home to Avenue of Spies protagonist Dr. Sumner Jackson and his family. Their address at Number 11 was both a meeting place for the French Resistance and a drop site for crucial information. High-ranking Nazis took up residence nearby putting the Jacksons in constant danger. Kershaw’s stories will bring to life the Jackson family’s courage at a time when “Never had so many psychopaths and sadists been based on one street in Paris.”

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